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Curtain Call

Virginia Museum Theater's longtime artistic director, Robert Telford, returns to Richmond.

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"Brush up your Shakespeare/ Start quoting him now/ Brush up your Shakespeare/And the women you will wow.” On a muggy Saturday afternoon, June 6, a half dozen or so theater folks sit around a table at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and break into song.

“That's the greatest song there ever was,” exclaims actor Bill Rothenberg with a smile as wide as a proscenium arch of the Cole Porter classic from “Kiss Me Kate.”

Rothenberg and the others aren't rehearsing, but reprising a number from a show they collaborated on 50 years ago at the now-closed — but to judge from this reunion — certainly not forgotten Virginia Museum Theater.

Some 40 associates gather at the museum's Pauley Center to reminisce with former artistic director Robert Telford, 84, who flew in from Long Beach, Calif., accompanied by his son, for a reunion with associates (acolytes, really) who worked at the theater company from 1959 to 1966. The theater was within the museum.

Although a few of the attendees are still active in other theater work, for most it's an afternoon of memories. Soon after Telford left Richmond to head a theater company in Fort Worth, Texas, the museum's theater went professional, leading to what some observers believe was the company's slow march to oblivion. The theater, then operating as TheaterVirginia, ceased operations in 2002. Arguably the best theater space in the region, it has since been “cocooned” during the museum's expansion, explains the museum's director, Alexander L. Nyerges.

Many maintain that Telford's tenure marked the theater's glory years with memorable productions such as “The Cherry Orchard, “Waiting for Godot,” and “Oklahoma!” establishing high benchmarks for local theater.

“We had some people that were just as good as Broadway,” Telford tells the assembled, “[but] the company went from being community theater to being a fund-raising operation.”

“If I were still here, that theater would still be open,” he adds, “but I'm not here to bitch.”

The afternoon was not an occasion for commiserating.

Telford makes it clear that he's most proud of having broken some racial barriers during with the theater. He recalls how he had wanted to produce “The Miracle Worker.” The play about the life of Helen Keller called for two black roles. But since the theater was a state institution in a state building and segregation was the law, he couldn't.

Later, however, Telford explains that when he produced “You Can't Take it With You,” he again needed to cast two black roles. He secretly smuggled actors into auditions at the museum studio and cast Carl Lester and Mary Jo Washington, both prominent African-American actors, in the play. 

“I cry when I say this,” he says, “But opening night the house blew off: It was the most incredible ovation I'd ever heard. That applause, I felt mighty proud of that. I think we changed things for Richmond. Theater not only reflects, but can also direct [the course of events].”

“And I've learned something along the way,” Telford adds, “Don't ask permission: Just do it and let them [the authorities] come to you.” S

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